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Helen Mirren talks drones, feminism and Jennifer Lawrence

The "Eye in the Sky" star says her film is all about raising the right questions, and says women need to speak up no matter what.
Helen MirrenEye in the Sky

Helen Mirren is shooting a film in New York. Even better, it’s the first time she and her husband, director Taylor Hackford (“Ray”), have ever worked in the same town at the same time.

While she films “Collateral Beauty,” with Kate Winslet and Will Smith, he’s making “The Comedian,” with Robert De Niro. She confesses they spend a lot of time apart, which she maintains is not a bad thing. “It’s fabulous,” Mirren tells us, with a laugh. “I’m a great believer in spending a lot of time apart.”

The Oscar-winning actress (and Dame), now 70, is taking a break to talk about “Eye in the Sky,” a British drama that most unfolds in real time. It traces as forces, from her colonel in London to a drone pilot (Aaron Paul) in Las Vegas, try to blow up a house containing terrorists — without accidentally killing a little girl playing near their target.

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Drones are something people can see in black-and-white terms, but “Eye in the Sky” isn’t interested in flattering either side. How did your thoughts on drones evolve on this film?
You know, you can’t just say, “Drones — what’s my take on drones?” Well, I don’t want a drone coming into my back garden and taking pictures of me sunbathing. But I’m sure as a surveillance tool, it’s incredibly valuable and useful.

You might as well say, “What’s your attitude about telephones?” People can phone each other up and plan terrible things. Do we ban telephones? It’s a technology we’re going to have to live with. You can’t just suddenly get rid of it. So the question becomes how and where do we use them or not use them? The whole point of the film is to throw up those questions.

It raises a lot of questions, and even suggests at times that drones make war more precise and easier to cut down on collateral damage — though not completely.
The same questions have been thrown up since time immemorial. What do you sacrifice and to what end? Innocent people are always killed, in every war. War is about killing innocent people. In the 18th century, 17th century, there was incredible collateral damage: local people, farms. That’s always been with us. Whenever there’s war there’s innocent people dying. The planes that flew over cities when the Brits bombed Dresden — they didn’t know where their bombs were dropping either. And nor did they care.

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Were there things you were particularly surprised to learn while researching this?
Honestly, my research was the script. But I didn’t know that drone pilots sat in trailers in Las Vegas. The other interesting thing is fighter pilots, who had to then transition to becoming drone pilots, were useless at it — or not as good at it as kids who grew up playing video games. Kids who play games are used to it. Fighter pilots are used to being able to change the trajectory quickly, whereas drones take a bit of time. They could never get their heads around it, whereas kids who play video games are totally adroit at that.

I always worry that the plethora of military video games have always been there to train soldiers from childhood.
I don’t think that’s necessarily the case at all. But you know more than I do, because you’re a man. It’s such a boy thing. I’m not saying gaming in general is a boy thing. Women are really getting involved in it now. But that side of gaming is such a male thing. We females sit back and go [makes a terrified face].

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Speaking of which, this is a drama with a woman on the poster. Given how much we’ve been talking about diversity, do you see Hollywood moving away from a purely boy- and superhero-driven landscape?
Yes, of course it will. People do need to speak up. I learned this with feminism. I’ve always been a feminist, but when I was younger I was never a proselytizing feminist. I totally believed in my right to do and be whatever I wanted to be, and anything that was holding me back was profoundly unfair. But I never joined a feminist group.

But you know what? You do need to speak up, you do need to articulate the issues. And you get s— for it, you get mocked for it, you get dumped upon for it. But you’re on the right side of history when you speak up. And things do change. Dialogue is really important.

It’s been heartening that, over the last year, pieces about diversity and inequality have actually done well with readers. They get shared online. It’s good for business, finally, to talk about it.
You journalists are very important, because for so long you didn’t talk about it. You didn’t want to. It’s funny: You can talk till your f—ing blue in the face. I’ve done interviews all my life and I’ve always talked about it. Did anyone print it? No. [Laughs] Not until it comes into the zeitgeist, if you like. Now it’s in the zeitgeist, which is great. Mind you, that will pass as well. But the genie’s out of the bottle.

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I did want to ask if you’ve seen those web posts with side-by-side comparisons of younger pictures of you and Jennifer Lawrence now. The resemblance is uncanny.
A little bit, yeah. She is much more beautiful than I ever was. I’m not being self-depreciating. She’s much, much more beautiful. But there are certain shots that I look a little bit like her. I should be so lucky, is all I can say. [Laughs]

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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